Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Daniel Read, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps. He died in Afghanistan on Monday, undertaking the dangerous work of protecting his fellow soldiers and civilians from explosive devices. The courage and selflessness of this work is truly breathtaking. His sacrifice will not be forgotten, and we send our sincere condolences to his family and friends.
I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute also to Rupert Hamer, who lost his life in Afghanistan while reporting from the front line, and to his colleague, who was injured. Our thoughts are also with their families, friends and colleagues. We are grateful to all those who put themselves in danger to ensure that the world is aware of the bravery of those serving in Afghanistan and the realities of life there.
Because of the devastating earthquake overnight, Haiti has moved to the centre of the world’s thoughts and the world’s compassion. The Government will respond with emergency aid, including firefighters, emergency equipment and finance, and give further support to help the people of Haiti to recover from that devastating event.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I am sure that the whole House will agree with the Prime Minister’s statement of condolence.
Looking back, our economy entered the recession with one of the largest budget deficits of any first world economy. On reflection, does the Prime Minister regret that?
No, we had one of the lowest debts—the second-lowest debt—in the G7. Our debt was lower than that of America, lower than that of France and of Germany, lower than that of the euro area and lower than that of Japan and of Italy. It is because we had a low debt that we have been able to take the measures that are necessary to help companies to deal with the recession, to help the unemployed get work, to help young people who are leaving school and to help thousands of small businesses survive. We took the right action in the recession; the Opposition advised the wrong action.
May I associate myself with the tribute that my right hon. Friend has paid to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that today marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Tom Hurndall, the British photographer who was shot by an Israeli sniper while trying to rescue children from danger in Gaza? Will he join me in paying tribute to the Hurndall family for their tireless efforts in cutting through so many smokescreens put forward by the Israeli military authorities, to get to the truth about Tom’s death and uphold the principles of accountability? Will he agree that as an international community we have no less responsibility to uphold the principle of accountability for the 352 Palestinian children, whose names we will never know, who died last year—
The situation in Gaza is serious. As I said last week, the only way forward and the only solution is a peace settlement between an Israel that needs security within its borders and a Palestine that needs to be a viable economic state. I have repeatedly urged the Israeli Government to improve access for humanitarian aid and workers. In addition to what I said last week, I should say that we have already spent more than £20 million on meeting urgent aid needs in Gaza. The Secretary of State for International Development announced a total package of £53 million for Palestine on 28 December, and that was with a particular focus on Gaza. We will meet the humanitarian needs of the Gaza people where we can. Access is important, but everybody knows that it is a political settlement that we need in that area.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Daniel Read from the Royal Logistic Corps, who died in Afghanistan serving our country? As the Prime Minister said, the work of bomb disposal experts is truly inspiring when we hear what they do to protect their comrades.
I also join the Prime Minister in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and family of Rupert Hamer. He and photographer Phil Coburn remind us of the bravery and professionalism of journalists who also put their lives at risk to ensure that they report on the work of our armed services overseas.
Finally, of course, I associate myself totally with the Prime Minister’s words about the terrible events in Haiti, and send my support to those involved in the humanitarian effort. Obviously, we look forward to a full statement in the House by the Secretary of State for International Development when appropriate.
The whole country will wish to praise the work of the emergency services and how they have dealt with the unexpected long spell of cold weather. We have all seen and heard incredible stories about neighbour helping neighbour. Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that everything that can be done is being done to ensure that we have sufficient supplies of salt and that it is being properly distributed so that we can keep our country moving at this time?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to tell the country the most updated situation on the transport network and the protection of our roads by salt. Virtually all main transport networks have remained operational throughout the period. For the work of our highway and other maintenance workers, and to those who are running the emergency services and the thousands of people who are volunteering—I pay tribute to organisations in areas around the country—the country remains deeply grateful. It shows that when there are difficulties, the country comes together as one to meet them.
Five airports in the south and midlands have been and will remain closed for a period this morning, but I believe that they will open later today. We are working with the Highways Agency, the devolved Administrations and representative local government to manage salt supplies. It is important that every road remains safe. It is also important that we have sustainable supplies of salt for what is the longest and worst period of bad weather for 30 years in this country.
As for salt, one of the salt producers has announced this morning that it will produce additional salt. We expect imports of salt in the next few days as a result of arrangements entered into weeks ago, and we are confident that, with the measures announced yesterday by the Transport Secretary, we will be able to maintain the road network. We are working closely with local authorities, and I hope that people will continue to be able to work together for the common good. It does prove that Britain works best when Britain works together.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer. The pressure on supplies and the steps taken to ration salt in the last week clearly show that lessons can be learned for the future. Can he tell us what steps he will take to hold a review and to involve those in local government, to ensure that we learn those lessons?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that each time we have a winter weather problem we should learn lessons from it. Last winter, we set up the UK Roads Liaison Group, and it made three recommendations that we implemented—for local authorities to hold a six-day salt supply, for the Highways Agency to have a bigger reserve and for transport workers to be allowed to work longer hours to deliver the salt. It also recommended the creation of a Salt Cell to ensure a fair distribution of salt throughout the country. We will review all those arrangements after this winter period, but at the beginning of this difficult spell, the Highways Agency had 13 days of supplies, and we are now building on that with orders from abroad and additional production from UK mines. We are doing everything that we can, and the Department for Transport has made every effort to consult all local authorities.
My right hon. Friend will know that today in Great Britain 80,000 children are living in care, 80 per cent. of whom will live in care until they are 16, not in a loving, stable family home. Is it not time that this House considered the lives of looked-after children again and considered that if a child is not living in a stable, loving home in the first 18 months of their life, adoption and long-term fostering must be their right in order to enter a loving, stable home?
This is a real challenge not only for all local authorities, but for all people. We must not only pay attention to the number of children in care, but make sure that those children have the chances that every other child has for educational attainment, for jobs and for stability in their lives as they leave care. In 2007, we published the White Paper “Care Matters” and we set out to transform the prospects of children and young people in care. We have made some progress with placement stability, there has been an increase in educational attainment and we have better outcomes for care leavers, but at the same time we must move faster to close the gap. That is why it is important to recognise that public expenditure has been necessary in this and it has doubled since 2000 on the needs of children in care. That is what we have tried to do to help those children.
I want to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Captain Daniel Read from the Royal Logistic Corps, who tragically lost his life serving in Afghanistan on Monday. I also want to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Rupert Hamer, the distinguished defence editor of the Sunday Mirror who died in an explosion on Saturday, and of course to the family and friends of his injured colleague, Philip Coburn.
As the Prime Minister said, as news is coming in of the terrible earthquake in Haiti, all our hearts go out to the many, many people who will be so terribly affected by that natural disaster. I am grateful for what he said about the Government’s humanitarian response.
Given everything that has come to light in the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, will the Prime Minister now do the decent thing and volunteer to give evidence to the inquiry before people decide how to vote on his record in government?
The Chilcot inquiry has drawn up a list of those people that it wishes to interview and has invited the people on the dates that it has done. I will follow the recommendations of the Chilcot committee. I have nothing to hide on this matter and I am happy to give evidence. Equally, at this time, I thought that the outcome of the debate in the House was that the Chilcot inquiry should decide when people were heard.
The point is that this is not just a question for Sir John Chilcot; it is a question for the Prime Minister’s own conscience. When the decisions were taken to launch this illegal war, he was not only in the room—he was the one who signed the cheques. He should insist on going to the inquiry now. People are entitled to know before they decide how to vote at the general election what his role was in this Government’s most disastrous decision. What has he got to hide?
Nothing, and the right hon. Gentleman was the one who wanted Chilcot to make the decisions about whom he called. He cannot on one day say that Chilcot should decide and then say that he or someone else should decide what happens.
On the Iraq war, we have given every single document to the Iraq inquiry. We have given it the opportunity to look at every document and to ask for which documents it wants to be declassified. The only documents that will be withheld from publication are those that directly affect national security and international relations. This is a full inquiry being run by Sir John Chilcot. People are being interviewed, rightly so, and asked for their evidence, but it is for the Chilcot committee to decide how it proceeds—that is what the right hon. Gentleman proposed.